One species you are guaranteed sightings of every single trip to Seal Island, South Africa, are of course the seals themselves. When approaching Seal Island, the sight (and smell!) of 65,000 of these curious pinnipeds clinging to a rock amazingly is something many take for granted.
Ok, It’s true that the Discovery Channel doesn’t feature a “seal week” however, the Apex crew and many regular guests who have spent many hours around the Cape Fur seal most definitely have a deeper respect and appreciation for what are themselves, an incredibly well-adapted, skilled and resilient predator (just like the White shark!)
Let’s look at the hard facts. The seals only come to land to breed so living quarters on the island are not exactly 5-stars, to put it mildly. Disease, starvation, and other natural causes are responsible for the lives of many of the animals at Seal Island, South Africa and that’s even before they enter the waters to feed themselves and potentially have a run-in with a hungry Great White shark!
Imagine you have multiple murderers living in your garden waiting for you every time you leave your house…….this is what seals face on a daily basis in peak season. If they are cunning enough to escape the jaws of many a shark, they are then rewarded by having to swim many miles out to sea for days on end to catch food themselves before returning back to Seal Island and running the gauntlet all over again!
So, just how do they manage to survive at all? Often referred to cruelly as “natures McNugget” and used for comical value in the shark week slogan “it’s a bad week to be a seal”, most believe seals are easy prey for the sharks. The truth is very different and the seals are actually incredibly adapted to their environment. They have to be!
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SEAL AND SHARK IS NOT ALWAYS THIS VIOLENT
In most cases, the seal will survive the approach from a White shark and if the shark misses the seal the first time around, then the chances of survival of the seal become more and more likely. The shark has the speed and the element of surprise however the seal has the cunning and the agility once the shark has been spotted. This is a duel that has been played out for thousands of years and just as the shark has evolved to successfully be capable of catching a seal, the seal has become equally adapted and evolved to avoid becoming prey to a shark.
The relationship between seal and shark is also not always this violent. In most cases, the animals live together harmoniously. The sharks do not swim around devouring every single seal they see. That would be like us walking down the street and devouring every item of food we come across. When a shark is hungry, they eat a seal, and likewise, when a seal is hungry, it eats a fish. Just like the lions don’t chase every single living animal they come across on the plains of Africa!
On rare occasions, we will get a seal to the boat during cage diving, which makes for some fascinating interactions. The seal (as long as he has his wits about him and the water is clear) will often have the upper hand and will mob, bite and harass the shark. The shark knows he has no chance and in many cases will actually be chased away! For most of our guests so accustomed to seeing seals getting devoured every two seconds on TV this interaction is the complete opposite of what they thought about these tough little shark bullies! I have even seen seals blowing bubbles in the faces of sharks to spook them away and a handful of times during cage diving, have ended up with the seal inside the cage with him in complete control of the environment and the situation he has found himself in!
I don’t expect the perception of sharks and seals to change any time soon. We still think of the seals as cute and cuddly and often portray the shark as the villain in the relationship however just remember seals themselves hunt and feed on smaller species of sharks just as aggressively as the White shark hunts them.
So, when you join us aboard our vessel and a shark and seal interaction is being played out right in front of you, whom are you going to cheer for? The cute big-eyed seal? The shark needing to eat to survive? We try to stay as neutral and respectful as possible during these moments. Nature can be incredibly tough. Every time I witness such an event, I have more respect for these tough, intelligent, agile, and resilient survivors…the Cape Fur Seals.